Student motivation journal club: Starting the year with a framework to understand motivation

Last week, my colleague Heather Fedesco and I convened the first meeting of a new, CFT-sponsored journal club on student motivation. We were excited to see the 15 or so faculty members who were there (and to get emails from others who had to miss it but plan to come to future meetings). As we got started, we asked why people had decided to join, and collectively they said something like, “I want to better understand motivation and the role it plays in my students’ efforts and actions. I have some insight, but I’d like language to describe what I think is going on, to help me explain the reasons behind some of the things that I do to try to promote student motivation, and to learn about other practices that might fit my context.”  

This is what we are going to try to do this year: to better understand what contributes to students’ (read: people’s) motivation and think about things we can do to have a positive impact.

We focused our first meeting on Chris Hulleman and colleagues’ outstanding book chapter, “Student motivation: Current theories, constructs, and interventions within an expectancy-value framework,” published in Psychosocial Skills and School Systems in the Twenty-First Century: Theory, Research, and Applications. They review various theories of motivation and (as the title suggests) fit them within a modified version of Eccles and colleagues’ expectancy-value framework of motivation, summarized in the figure below.

In essence, this framework suggests that there are three elements of motivation:

  1. Expectations of success
  2. Value for the task, either because we like doing it, we think it will help us in some way, or because achieving it confirms some important way we see ourselves
  3. Cost, which can range from the opportunity cost of not getting to do other things we value to negative physical and psychological reactions.

The authors first review theories that relate to expectations of success, identifying several key factors that make up students’ expectancies:

  1. Self-efficacy, or the belief that one can successfully complete a task (Bandura, 1997).  Students’ build their self-efficacy from their previous performances, observing others perform successfully, hearing encouragement from important others, and their internal physiological responses. Generally, self-efficacy is associated with positive educational outcomes through a variety of mechanisms (see the chapter for all the lovely references).
  2. Expectancies (Eccles and Wigfield, 2002) and self-concept (Marsh, 1990), which encompass beliefs about one’s abilities. These constructs seem really similar to self-efficacy to me but typically relate to larger domains. Again, these factors predict success.
  3. Perceived control (Skinner, 1996) and attributions of success and failure (Weiner et al., 1976). Students who believe that success is something they control—that is, they have an internal locus of control—are generally more motivated and academically successful than students who believe their success is controlled by others. Further, students may identify causes of success as stable (e.g., ability, task difficulty) or unstable (luck, effort) and controllable (effort) or uncontrollable (luck).
  4. Theories of intelligence (Dweck, 1999). People may consider intelligence to be static (fixed) or dynamic and changeable (growth), and these beliefs impact their expectations of success when faced with challenges.

The authors then review theoretical constructs and research related to values, which address students’ investment in doing academic tasks.

  1. Subjective task values (Eccles, 2005). The expectancy-value theory states that students’ internal valuation of a task guides their engagement with the task, and suggests that this assessment of value can have several factors:
    • Intrinsic value, or how much a student likes doing a task
    • Utility value, or how much a student believes a task has current or future value. For example, usefulness in daily life increases utility value, as does usefulness for a future career goal.
    • Attainment value, or the importance of a task for an individual’s identity. If a student thinks she is a budding mathematician, then math tasks will tend to have higher value for her.
  2. Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. The authors link Ryan and Deci’s self-determination theory (2000) to task value, arguing that students’ value for a task exists on Ryan and Deci’s continuum. In essence, this continuum states that motivation moves from amotivation to extrinsic to intrinsic as students’ internal value for a task increases, and that this corresponds to increasing self-determination (see the table below).
  3. Human values and psychological needs. The authors touch on the ways in which task value can relate to human values (e.g., social recognition, wisdom) (Schwartz and Bilsky, 1990) as well as how tasks can fulfill the core psychological needs of competence, autonomy, and relatedness to others (Ryan and Deci, 2000).
Ryan and Deci’s motivated regulation continuum

Importantly (and as indicated in the figure above), the authors also draw out perceived cost as a primary contributor to motivation, and indicate that expectancies, task values, and perceived costs are not independent factors, but can instead influence each other. For example, my colleague Derek Bruff talked about his experience as a junior mathematics major studying abroad in Hungary. He said he had always had relatively easy success at doing his math homework up until that point—that he could invest 20 minutes on a math problem and be successful—but that his experience in the study abroad program was different—20 minutes would no longer net him success. Rather than shaking his self-efficacy or his self-concept, however, this just led him to adjust his cost expectations—he learned that it might take him 2 hours to achieve the same success, but that he could still do it. I love how this example highlights some of the relationships in our model of motivation: the tasks had attainment value to Derek because of his self-concept, and his store of self-efficacy allowed him to adjust his acceptable cost. (It’s worth noting that he was with a bunch of other American math majors, and this experience may have increased their relatedness as well.)

The group also discussed how some fields tend to endorse the “born to it” or “genius” model of success, and how this can really impact students’ expectancies, perhaps leading them to rely too heavily on native talent or to fade in the face of challenges. How do we combat these perceptions? One important way may be simply how we talk about effort and success in our field, and another may be breaking down large tasks to allow students to see that success isn’t the result of genius but instead careful attention to key components. For example, one journal club attendee talked about how reading Supreme Court law cases can give the impression that some lawyers are simply brilliant, but that deconstruction of the cases can help students see that careful analysis that underlies the arguments. Importantly, the group discussed the importance of acknowledging when a task is challenging and avoiding characterizing tasks as easy, which can undermine students’ sense of self-efficacy if it’s not yet easy for them.

We didn’t have time to turn to my favorite part of the chapter: three tables that lay out research-based sources of expectancies, task values, and costs (go look at them! It’s so worth your time!). In October, we are going to turn to Yaeger and colleagues’ paper Boring but Important: A Self-Transcendent Purpose for Learning Fosters Academic Self-Regulation and see how it shapes our thinking about motivation. If you’re at Vanderbilt, we’d love for you to join us—and if not, we invite you to join us via this blog or Twitter.


  1. I was unable to attend in person this time around, but already looking forward to next month’s session. A lot of the conceptual framework in this chapter was outside of my comfort zone–a whole new vocabulary and mindset to work through, so I really appreciate your thoughtful summary here!


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